Dante Alighieri translated by John Ciardi

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Dante Alighieri translated by John Ciardi

Post by ARES on Fri Sep 28, 2012 7:17 pm

When the violin repeats what the piano has just played, it cannot make the same sounds and it can only approximate the same chords. It can, however, make recognizably the same "music," the same air. But it can do so only when it is as faithful to the self-logic of the violin as it is to the self-logic of the piano.

Language too is an instrument.

And each language has its own logic. I believe that the process of rendering from language to language is better conceived as a "transposition" than as a "translation," for "translation" implies a series of word-for-word equivalents that do not exist across language boundaries any more than piano sounds exist in the violin.

The notion of word-for-word equivalents also strikes me as false to the nature of poetry. Poetry is not made of words but of word-complexes, elaborate structures involving, among other things, denotations, connotations, rhythms, puns, juxtapositions, and echoes in prose and impossible in poetry to juggle such a complex intact across the barrier of language. What must be saved, even at the expense of making four strings do for eighty-eight keys, is the total feeling of the complex, its "gestalt".

The only way I could see of trying to preserve that "gestalt" was try for a language as close as possible to Dante's, which is in essence a sparse, direct, and idiomatic language, distinguishable from prose only in that it transcends every known notion of prose. I do not imply that Dante's is the language of common speech. It is a much better thing than that: it is what common speech would be if it were made perfect.

One of the main sources of the tone of Dante's speech is his revolt from the Sicilian School of Elegance. Nothing would be more misleading than to say that Dante's language is simple. Overwhelmingly, however, it seeks to avoid elegance simply for the sake of elegance. And overwhelmingly it is a spoken tongue.

I have labored therefore for something like idiomatic English in the present rendering. And I have foregone the use of Dante's triple rhyme because it seemed clear that one rendering into English might save the rhyme or save the tone of the language, but not both. It requires approximately 1,500 triple rhymes to render the Inferno and even granted that many of these combinations can be used and re-used, English has no such resources of rhyme. Inevitably the language must be inverted, distorted, padded, and made unspeakable in order to force the line to come out on that third all-consuming rhyme. In Italian, where it is only a slight exaggeration to say that everything rhymes with everything else or variant from of it, the rhyme is no problem: in English it is disaster.

At the same time some rhyme is necessary, I think, to approximate Dante's way of going, and the three-line stanzas seems absolutely indispensable because the fact that Dante's thought tends to conclude at the end of each tercet (granted a very large number of run-on tercets) clearly determines the "pace" of the writing, i.e., the rate at which it reveals itself to the reader. These were my reasons for deciding it on the present form. Moreover, I have not hesitated to use a deficient rhyme when the choice seemed to lie between forcing an exact rhyme and keeping the language more natural.

For my interpretation of many difficult passages I have leaned heavily on the Biagi commentaries, and even more heavily on the Vandelli-Scartazzini. A number of these interpretations are at odds with those set forth in some of the more familiar English versions of the Inferno, but, subject to my own error, this rendering is consistent at all points with Vandelli's range of arguments.

I have also leaned heavily on the good will and knowledge of a number of scholars. Dudley Fitts, read patiently through the whole manuscript and made detailed, and usually legible, notes on it. Professor A.T. MacAllister not only gave me the benefit of another complete set of detailed notes, but agreed to undertake the historical introduction so important to a good understanding of Dante, and so brilliantly presented here.

Professor Giorgio di Santillana gave me sound and subtle advice on many points. My major regret is that he left for Italy before I could take further advantage of his patience and of his prfound understanding of Dante. I wish to thank also Professor C.S. Singleton for some useful disapproval at a few points, Professor Irwin Swerdlow and Professor Richard W.B. Lewis for hours of patient listening, and my sister, Mrs. Thomas W. Fennessey, for typing through many drafts. I think, too, I should acknowledge a debt of borrowed courage to all other translators of Dante; without their failures I should never have attempted my own.

----John Ciardi


The "Divine Comedy" is one of the few literary works which have enjoyed a fame that was both immediate and enduring. Fame might indeed be said not to have awaited its completion, shortly before the author's death in 1321, for the first two parts, including the Inferno here presented, had already in a very few years achieved a reputation tinged with super-natural awe. Within two decades a half-dozen commentaries had been written, and fifty years later it was accorded the honor of public readings and exposition ---- an almost unheard-of tribute to a work written in the humble vernacular.

The six centuries through which the poem has come to us have not lessened its appeal nor obscured its fame. All of them have not, of course, been unanimous in their appreciation: for a fifteenth-century Latinist, Dante was a poet "fit for cobblers"; eighteenth-century worshipers of Reason could not be wholly sympathetic to a poet who insisted on the limitations of reason and philosophy. It was the effete mid-sixteenth century which, in spite of certain reservations, first proclaimed "divine" the work its author had called simply his "comedy". The significant fact is that the Divine Comedy has demanded critical consideration of each successive age and every great writer; and the nature of their reaction could well serve as a barometer of taste and a measure of their greatness.

By that standard the present age should prove truly great, for its interest in the Comedy has rarely been matched. Credit for the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Dante in the English-speaking world belongs to Coleridge, who was ably seconded in this country by Longfellow and Norton. Contemporary enthusiasm was touched off by T.S. Eliot's Essay on Dante and has grown, in some quarters to the proportions of a cult.

What is this work which has displayed such persistent vitality? It is a narrative poem whose greatest strength lies in episodes. Dante had doubtless learned from experience how soporific a long narrative could be. He also firmly believed that the senses were the avenues to the mind and that sight was the most powerful ("noblest," he would have said) of these. Hence his art is predominantly visual. He believed also that the mind must be moved in order to grasp what the senses present to it; therefore he combines sight, sound, hearing, smell and touch with fear, pity, anger, horror and other appropriate emotions to involve his reader to the point of seeming actually to experience his situations and not merely to read about them. It is really a three-dimensional art.

The Divine Comedy is also an allegory. But it is fortunately that special type of allegory wherein every element must first correspond to a literal reality, every episode must exist coherently in itself. Allegoric interpretation does not detract from the story as told but is rather an added significance which one may take or leave. Many readers, indeed, have been thrilled by the Inferno's power with hardly an awareness of further meanings. Dante represents mankind, he presents the "Noble Soul,"but first and always he is Dante Alighieri, born in thirteenth-century Florence; Virgil represents human reason, but only after he has been accepted as the poet of ancient Rome. The whole poem purports to be a vision of the three realms of the Catholic otherworld, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, and a description of "the state of the soul after death"; yet it is peopled with Dante's contemporaries and, particularly in the materialistic realism of the Inferno, it is torn by issues and feuds of the day, political, religious and personal. It treats of the most universal values ---- good and evil, man's responsibility, free will and predestination; yet it is intensely personal and political, for it was written out of the anguish of a man who was his life blighted by the injustice and corruption of his times.

The Divine Comedy is classically referred to as the epitome, the supreme expression of the Middle Ages. If by this is meant that many typically medieval attitudes are to be found in it, it is true; the reasoning is Scholastic, the learning, the mysticism are those of the author's time. But if from such a statement one is to infer (as is frequently done) that the poem is a hymn to it's times, a celebration and glorification of the ways of God, but it is also a sharp and great-minded protest at the ways in which men have thwarted the divine plan. This plan, medieval view, which saw the earthly life as a "vale of tears," a period of trial and suffering, an unpleasant but necessary preparation for the afterlife where alone man could expect to enjoy happiness. To Dante such an idea was totally repugnant. He gloried in his God-given talent, his well-disciplined faculties, and it seemed inconceivable to him that he and mankind in general should not have been intended to develop to the fullest their specifically human potential. The whole Comedy is pervaded by his conviction that man should seek earthly immortality by his worthy actions here, as well as prepare to merit the life everlasting.

His theory is stated explicitly in his Latin treatise, De Monarchia:

"Ineffable Providence has thus designed two ends to be contemplated of man: first, the happiness of this life, which consists in the activity of his natural powers, and is prefigured by the Earthly Paradise; and then the blessedness of life everlasting....which may be symbolized by the Celestial Paradise."

To us, reading his masterpiece at the comfortable distance of six hundred years, it may well seem that few men have better realized their potential than Dante; to him, a penniless exile convicted of a felony, separated under pain of death from home, family and friends, his life seemed to have been cut off in the middle.

It was Dante's pride----and the root of his misfortune----to have been born in the free commune of Florence, located near the center of the Italian peninsula, during the turbulent thirteenth century. It is important that we remember to think of it, not as an Italian city, but as a sovereign country, a power in the peninsula and of growing importance internationally. It had its own army, its flag, its ambassadors, its foreign trade, its own coinage; the florin, in fact, was on its way to becoming the standard of international exchange, pound sterling or dollar of its day. Its control was a prize worth fighting for, among themselves. Internal strife had begun long before, as the weakening of the Empire had left its robber-baron representatives increasingly vulnerable to attack and eventual subjection by the townsfolk. They had become unruly citizens at best in their fortress-like houses, and constituted a higher nobility, the merchants and the artisans. The history of the republic for many years is the story of the bloody struggle among these groups, with these groups, with the gradual triumph of the lower classes as flourishing trade brought them unheard-of prosperity. Early in Dante's century the struggle acquired color and new ferocity. In 1215, the jilting of an Amidei girl was avenged by the murder of the offending murder of the Buondelmonti family, which, according to the chronicler Villani, originated the infamous Guelph-Ghibelline factions. But the lines had already long been drawn on the deeper issues, with the Ghibellines representing the old Imperial aristocracy and the Guelphs the burghers, who, in international politics, favored the Pope. In 1248, with the aid of Frederick II, the Ghibellines expelled the Guelphs; in 1251 the latter returned and drove out the Ghibellines, who were again defeated in 1258. In 1260 the Ghibellines amassed a formidable army under the leadership of Farinata degli Uberti and overwhelmed the Guelphs at Montaperti, where the Arbia ran red with the blood of the six thousand slain, and sixteen thousand were taken prisoner. The very existence of Florence hung momentarily in the balance as the triumphant Ghibellines listened to the urgings of their allies from neighboring Siena that they wipe out the city; only Farinata's resolute opposition saved it. Gradually the Guelphs recovered, and in 1266 they completely and finally crushed their enemies at Benevento. Thus ended the worst of this partisan strife from which, as Machiavelli was to write, "there resulted more murders, banishments and destruction of families than ever in any city known to history."

Dante Alighieri had been born the preceding year, 1265, toward the end of May; he was a year old when his family (a typically Guelph mixture of lesser nobility and burgher) must have joined in the celebration of their party's victory. His whole impressionable childhood was undoubtedly filled with stories of the struggle so recently ended. The fascination it had for him is evident in the Comedy, where it is an important factor in the Inferno and the lower, "material" portion of the Purgatorio.

Our actual knowledge of Dante's life is disappointingly small, limited to a few documents of record. The biographies, beginning with Boccaccio's about fifty years after his death, are largely hearsay, legend and deductions based on his works and the meager references scattered through them. We know that his mother died when he was very young, that his father remarried, and that Dante was completely orphaned in adolescense. This is thought to account for a certain hunger for parental affection which can be noted in the Comedy. He doubtless received the normal education of the day for his class, and perhaps more, for his bent must have been clearly intellectual and literary. That he took an early interest in the vernacular lyric only recently borrowed from the Provencal is demonstrated by poems dating from his middle or late teens. It was through this activity that he made his closest friendship, that with Guido Cavalcanti, who was a gifted poet some years Dante's senior.

Most of our impressions about his youth are gleaned from his first work, in the planning of which Cavalcanti had a part. Called "La Vita Nuova (The New Life)," it was deliberately written in the vernacular in 1292 to celebrate the most important influence in Dante's life, his love for Beatrice Portinari. It is made up of sonnets and longer lyrics interspersed with prose passages which explain and narrate the circumstances under which the poems had been composed years earlier. An astonishing feature of the book is the careful symmetry of its arrangement where the balance of three, nine and ten foreshadows the elaborate design which will be worked out in the Comedy. Very briefly, it is the story of a boy of nine suddenly awaking to love at the sight of a girl of almost the same age; of a second encounter at the age of eighteen when a greeting is exchanged; of tribulations and misunderstandings leading to her disapproval; of he sudden death when the poet was twenty-five, his grief and attempted consolation by another girl; finally of a "marvelous vision" of his Beatrice when he was twenty-seven, thus completing the trinity of "nines" and determining him to write no more of her until he could do so worthily. Although it is autobiographical, the "Vita Nuova" is not an autobiography; it is a delicate and sensitive analysis of emotions. Such facts as enter into assume an air of strange unreality.

----PART 1 of INTRODUCTION (too lazy to put the rest)

The void awaits......... http://newdominoacademy.forumotion.com/t1422p15-the-chaos-void

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I'll ever know
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